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This article is taken from the May 2001 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

The role of traditional leaders in rural development projects (Part II)

In the December edition of Phatlalatsa, S&T Senior Partner Moagi Ntsime, and Sibongile Mthembu, EPA Development’s Provincial Programme Manager, discussed the role of traditional leaders in development. In this edition Moagi develops answers to some of the questions raised in the first article.

In the first article, we indicated that traditional leaders play a major role in community-based development projects - but that this can be either a positive or negative role.

Community development projects are expected to generate employment opportunities, enhance economic development and activity and open possible new opportunities; enhancing social cohesion is also important. Traditional leaders are key stakeholders located between organs of government, funding sources, development agencies and local people. The challenge is ensuring that they are development partners.

Are traditional leaders gatekeepers?

There are specific examples in the country where traditional leaders have acted as gatekeepers; and there are instances where their involvement in development initiatives functioned well and benefited the local community. In other words, there is no single answer: traditional leaders can be either gate-keeper or facilitator.

For example, in one instance in Izingolweni, in the Ugu District Council, a baseline study was commissioned by the National Department of Public Works. This was to assess poverty levels and development need profiles of the surrounding communities. The baseline was important in that the Department would have accurate data upon which their poverty alleviation strategy would be based.

Prior to fieldwork, initiatives were undertaken to inform the local leadership and all stakeholders about the study and its overall objective. The fieldwork team could not access some areas without the permission of the local Inkosi. But the relationship did not prove easy, and meetings to resolve the issue were continuously postponed.

This delay posed serious challenges for the project. Firstly, the project was time bound: it had to be completed, results analysed, and presented to the Department with concrete policy recommendation within a specified timeframe. Secondly, delays had direct cost implications: fieldworkers had to be paid while waiting for access. Thirdly, the longer it took to provide data, the longer the Department had to wait to check their strategy and goals. The Department could not go ahead and implement projects that may not have been priority projects for the area.

Various strategies were used to finally break the logjam and receive permission to collect data in the area. Some important findings emerged from the study. For example, clean water was cited by respondents as a top development priority for the area. People had to travel long distances to fetch water, and these were mostly women and children. Secondly, access to health care was the second mostly identified development need by the local community. While there was a mobile clinic in the area every fortnight, this did not reach the majority of people because of the distances they had to travel and the number of people it had to cater for. Again those who suffered the most were the poor in the area, pregnant women, children and the terminally ill.

Politics must give priority to strengthening rural areas

It is important that policy-makers, Councillors in rural areas, traditional leaders and other stakeholders should listen more to the priorities and concerns of residents. Through close dialogue, which could be facilitated by the involvement of traditional leaders, local communities will be better placed to identify, prioritise and participate in processes of ensuring that their development needs are realised. As the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) takes centre stage in delivering development in South Africa, so this must become a priority.

Somehow, development needs must override political boundaries. For example, the fact that people of Squngqweni village in Tsolo could be cut off by heavy rains defined their needs - not their political affiliation, or what the local chief would like them to say or not say. The local chief can play a unifying role in activities geared towards resolving the problem.

We need to caution that this is always not easy, especially if project officials in a particular area do not perceive traditional leadership as central to sustainable development initiatives. Traditional leaders can obstruct such initiatives because they want to flex their political muscle, and signal their control over rural jurisdictions. But they can also be critical links between the project team and the local community. Through their assistance, problems of post project control, ownership and management by local communities can be addressed and sustainability considerably enhanced.

Concluding remarks

It is time for a free and frank discussion about the role of traditional leaders as development partners. We have no easy solutions to offer - but the issue needs sensitive research and a commitment from both sides to develop workable positions.

For example, where traditional leaders resist attempts to enhance opportunities for women, it is important that these leaders are engaged in a strategic process of discussion. This may ensure their involvement by demonstrating in practical terms how these projects impact positively on the lives of their people.

A broader development perspective would also equip traditional leaders to understand and explain why targeting exercises may benefit one area but not another; or why programmes give preference to particular groups or types of individual. Traditional leaders must be brought on board for rural development to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

 

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